These Chinese immigrants opened the doors to the American West
As many as 20,000 Chinese workers were recruited to build North America’s railways. Their descendants are still fighting for recognition, writes photographer Philip Cheung.
A freight train passes through Palisade Canyon in Nevada. As many as 20,000 Chinese were recruited during the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad. They lived in segregated areas, earned less than their white counterparts, and were denied citizenship after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Descendants, historians, and activists are fighting for recognition of the Chinese workers’ contributions.
After Utah State Historic Preservation Officer Chris Merritt showed me the ruins of Kelton, the last of the railroad ghost towns he wanted me to see that day, a storm whipped up on the horizon. I stood there watching the landscape, these clouds, the winds blowing up the dust, and I thought about what life was like more than 150 years ago for the Chinese workers who lived here then, laying rail and inhabiting this thrown-together desert settlement thousands of miles from home. There’s a fenced cemetery, not far away, where volunteers with dogs are helping locate remains outside the fence—probably the bones of Chinese workers, because the Chinese weren’t allowed to be buried where the white people were. I stood there too, and what I felt, for these people who worked so hard to help build America, was shame.
I grew up in Toronto, and when I first found out that Chinese workers had helped build the Canadian railways, I wanted to know more. The monumental story I learned is the heart of this photographic project: Before Canada’s construction ever got under way, immigrant laborers from China—10,000 to 20,000, according to the haphazard records—had built the hardest, most dangerous segments of the transcontinental railroad in the western United States. Through the Sierra Nevada mountains and across Utah’s high desert, it was mostly Chinese men who blasted tunnels and pounded track into place. The history of these immigrants who literally laid foundations for North American rail travel and the economic expansion of the American West is being told now by scholars, activists, and the workers’ own descendants, like Christopher Kumaradjaja, the great-great-grandson of the Central Pacific Railroad worker Hung Lai Woh. To this day, Kumaradjaja told me, people ask him where he’s “from.” He’s a fifth-generation American, he replies, and sometimes wants to add: Are you?
Photographs made by Philip Cheung have been exhibited at several museums and featured in publications such as Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and Time. Based in Los Angeles, he’s continuing to develop his project about the Chinese migrant laborers who worked on the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1800s. Follow him on Instagram @philipcheungphoto.